Bowling (cricket)

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In the sport of cricket, the act of bowling is delivery of the ball by the bowler from his end of the pitch to the other, where the wicket is defended by the striker armed with a bat.[1] In a dictionary definition, "to bowl" is to "propel the ball towards the wicket for the batsman to attempt to hit".[2] Delivery must be done fairly in accordance with The Laws of Cricket.

Originally, all bowling was done with an underarm action and, depending on the speed of delivery, the ball was rolled, skimmed or trundled along the ground with minimal bounce. To counter this, the batsman used a bat shaped like a modern hockey stick. In about 1760, the pitched delivery was introduced (still with an underarm action) whereby the ball is "given air" in order to obtain significant bounce. It is believed that the aim has always been to bounce the ball once only and bowlers began to experiment with line, length and trajectory. The hockey stick shape was no use against the bouncing and the straight bat was invented. Roundarm bowling, performed with an outward horizontal swing of the arm, was devised sometime around the end of the eighteenth century and, in the 1820s, a growing campaign called the "March of Intellect" was mounted to have the style legalised. Amid fierce controversy, this was achieved in 1835 and roundarm became the predominant style of bowling until 1864 when the modern overarm style was legalised, again controversially.

There are three basic types of bowling: fast, medium pace and spin. Each of these have their sub-classifications, partly dependent on the bowler's arm and to some extent whether the batsman is right-handed or left-handed.

Underarm bowling

Underarm bowling is as old as the sport itself. Until the introduction of the roundarm style in the first half of the 19th century, bowling was always performed with an underarm action wherein the bowler's hand is below his waist at the point of delivery. For centuries, bowling was performed exactly as in bowls because, depending on the pace of delivery, the ball was rolled (slow), skimmed (fast) or trundled (medium pace) along the ground with minimal bounce. Despite the variations in pace, the basic action was essentially the same and there are surviving illustrations from the first half of the eighteenth century which depict the bowler with one knee bent forward and his bowling hand close to the ground, while the ball is bowled towards a batsman armed with a bat shaped something like a large hockey stick and guarding a two-stump wicket.

In the early 1760s, cricket was revolutionised by the introduction of pitched delivery bowling. The bouncing ball (one bounce only) was an evolutionary change and has been described as the event that took cricket out of its "pioneering phase" into what may be termed its "pre-modern phase" (i.e., which ended when overarm bowling ushered in the modern game in 1864) and effectively created a different code of cricket, just as there are now two different codes of rugby football. By 1772, when the completion of detailed scorecards became commonplace, the pitched delivery was established practice and, in response to it, the modern straight bat had been invented, the hockey stick shape of bat being of little or no use against a bouncing ball.[3]

Underarm was largely superseded by roundarm from the late 1820s onward and then almost totally after overarm was legalised in 1864. Underarm prevailed in the days of rudimentary pitch preparation because the ball did not run smoothly over the uneven surface and batsmen could easily be deceived by deflections off the rough. As better pitches with level surfaces became common, greater bounce became a necessity for the bowlers and so the game evolved through the bowling styles. By the 1920s, underarm was virtually extinct in the first-class game though there have been isolated instances of its usage, generally by non-bowlers called on to try something different, or for a bit of fun, when a match was in a stalemate situation.

Roundarm bowling

It is believed that roundarm was probably devised by Tom Walker in the 1790s after he realised that he could generate more bounce and pace off the pitch if he bowled with his arm away from his body. It is uncertain if he tried the style in competitive matches but he would certainly have been no-balled and it appears that he stuck to his usual underarm lobs until he retired. John Willes was more determined to introduce the style and adapted it so that his arm came through at shoulder height, but he was unsuccessful in his attempts to use it in matches and eventually quit the sport in disgust. Willes had shaken the cricket establishment, though, because The Laws of Cricket were amended in 1816 to prohibit roundarm:

The ball must be bowled (not thrown or jerked), and be delivered underhand, with the hand below the elbow. But if the ball be jerked, or the arm extended from the body horizontally, and any part of the hand be uppermost, or the hand horizontally extended when the ball is delivered, the Umpires shall call, "No Ball".

Willes gave up his unequal struggle in 1822, but this was just when other leading players became seriously interested. None more so than the Sussex bowlers William Lillywhite and Jem Broadbridge. In 1827, three trial matches were arranged between Sussex and a Rest of England team. These were inconclusive and the controversy rumbled on. In 1828, Law 10 was amended so that the bowler's hand could be raised as high as the elbow (Walker's original method), but Lillywhite, Broadbridge and others continued to bowl at shoulder height and, most of the time, the umpires didn't no-ball them. In 1835, roundarm was legalised with Law 10 amended to read: "if the hand be above the shoulder in the delivery, the umpire must call No Ball".

Underarm was not completely superseded by roundarm and both styles were in evidence through the middle years of the nineteenth century, sometimes called the "roundarm era". Noted roundarm bowlers were Lillywhite, Broadbridge, Alfred Mynn and John Jackson. W. G. Grace learned how to bowl by using a roundarm style and, even though overarm was legalised just before his first-class career began, he never adapted and bowled roundarm for the next forty-odd years until he retired. Roundarm had virtually disappeared from first-class cricket by the beginning of the twentieth century but it has been revived in the 21st century by the Sri Lankan fast bowler Lasith Malinga.

Overarm bowling

An overarm delivery is simply one in which the bowler's arm is above shoulder height. Having won the roundarm argument, it was only a matter of time before the bowler's would raise their arms even higher. Law 10 on roundarm was reinforced in 1845 by a codicil that removed any benefit of the doubt from the bowler and it was entirely up to the umpire to decide if the shoulder height limitation had been breached. Finally, in a match at Kennington Oval between Surrey and an All-England team, Ned Willsher bowled an entire over using an overarm action and all six deliveries were no-balled by umpire John Lillywhite, the son of William Lillywhite. Willsher left the field followed by all his fellow-professionals and play resumed after Lillywhite stood aside and was replaced by another umpire. This time, Law 10 was amended with relative haste and overarm was legalised from the beginning of the 1864 season. Law 10, as then written, stipulated that the bowler may bring his arm through at any height to complete his delivery providing it was straight and the ball was not thrown.

Bowling styles and classifications

There are a dozen or more designated bowling categories all dependent on the bowler's hand, his speed and how he uses the ball. Genuine fast bowlers, often called "pacemen", can deliver the ball at speeds greater than 90 mph. Even a so-called slow bowler delivers at over 40 mph, while a medium-pacer is somewhere in the 60 to 70 mph range. Pace bowlers who are below 90 mph are usually called "fast medium" and they tend to rely on movement of the ball off the seam rather than sheer speed.

Spin bowlers are sub-divided into finger spinners and wrist spinners. A right arm spinner who uses his fingers is called an off break bowler because, on pitching, the ball breaks from the off side of the pitch towards the leg side (if the batsman is right-handed). A right arm spinner with a wrist action is called a leg break bowler because the ball breaks from the leg side to the off side (again if a right-handed batsman). A "googly" is a ball bowled by a leg spinner which breaks from off to leg and is hence known as a "wrong 'un" in Australia.

Left arm spinners are either orthodox (fingers) or unorthodox (wrist). The orthodox left-arm action cause the ball to break from right to left, which is leg to off if the batsman is right-handed. The unorthodox wrist action, which is widely known as a "chinaman", has a left to right break.

The shorthand bowling classifications used by Playfair and other sources are:[4]

  • LB – right-arm leg break
  • LBG – right-arm leg break and googly
  • LF – left-arm fast
  • LFM – left-arm fast medium
  • LM – left-arm medium
  • OB – right-arm off break
  • RF – right-arm fast
  • RFM – right-arm fast medium
  • RM – right-arm medium
  • SLA – slow left-arm orthodox
  • SLC – slow left-arm chinaman (unorthodox)

Underarm incident in 1981

Underarm was dramatically reintroduced on 1 February 1981 when, in the final of the Benson & Hedges World Series Cup at the Melbourne Cricket Ground, the Australian bowler Trevor Chappell, under orders from his captain and brother Greg Chappell, rolled the final ball all along the ground to prevent New Zealand batsman Brian McKechnie from hitting it for the six runs that New Zealand needed to tie the match. The incident had widespread repercussions, being condemned as gamesmanship and sharp practice. It was not actually a "no ball" because an underarm action was legal at the time.[5]

As a direct result of the incident, the International Cricket Council ruled that underarm bowling in limited overs cricket is "not within the spirit of the game". This necessitated a change in The Laws of Cricket and Law 21.1.2 now states that "underarm bowling shall not be permitted except by special agreement before the match".[6]


  1. Barclay's, page 694.
  2. Oxford, page 165.
  3. From Lads to Lord's: 1751 – 1760 (10 October 2012). Archived from the original on 10 October 2012.
  4. Playfair 2018, page 86.
  5. New Zealanders in Australia, 1980–81. Wisden Online (1981).
  6. Law 21 – No Ball. MCC (2018).


  • Marylebone Cricket Club: The Laws. MCC, The Laws of Cricket (2017).
  • Oxford University: Oxford English Dictionary, 11th Edition. Oxford University Press (2004).
  • Playfair: Playfair Cricket Annual. Playfair Books Ltd (1948 to present).
  • Swanton, E. W. (editor): Barclays World of Cricket, 3rd edition. Willow Books (1986).